How Democrats Got Mired In A Nasty Internal Battle Over Abortion

The party’s unity tour reopened wounds from the primary.

WASHINGTON ― National reproductive rights groups counted it as a major victory last week when the Democratic National Committee doubled down on its commitment to abortion rights amid anger at its support for Heath Mello, an anti-abortion candidate for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska.

But the groups’ pointed criticism of DNC chair Tom Perez, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) for embracing Mello sparked a bitter public debate about the Democratic Party’s values ― one that continues to simmer, overshadowing the large crowds the party drew on its cross-country tour and muddying efforts to present a united front against President Donald Trump.

Now even the DNC is clarifying that it never meant to suggest it would not back Mello or other anti-abortion Democrats.

“Tom does not believe in litmus tests and he never said that he didn’t support pro-life candidates,” a DNC official told HuffPost.

In fact, the DNC invested in Mello’s race and in “candidates up and down the ballot” in the May 9 general election through a contribution to the Nebraska Democratic Party, the official said.

No one has escaped blame in the recent abortion spat, however. Depending on who you ask, Sanders and his campaign spinoff group Our Revolution blindsided the party by failing to unearth Mello’s history of supporting abortion restrictions; Perez sowed confusion in his rush to assuage NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading reproductive rights advocacy group; NARAL adopted an unusually orthodox stance in a bid to undermine Sanders; or it was some combination of the above.

That leaves Perez, who is just over two months into his term as DNC chair, with the difficult task of picking up the pieces ahead of the DNC’s first Unity Reform Commission meeting next week. The commission was formed precisely to hash out the sort of internecine conflicts that dogged the 2016 presidential primary and resurfaced with a vengeance in Omaha.

“He’s planning to meet with folks from all sides of this issue,” the DNC official said of Perez.

Tom does not believe in litmus tests and he never said that he didn’t support pro-life candidates. DNC official

The problems arose when The Wall Street Journal reported last Wednesday that Mello, as a state senator, had co-sponsored 2009 legislation requiring abortion providers to offer to show women an ultrasound image of the fetus before undergoing the procedure. The reproductive rights news site Rewire subsequently reported that Mello co-sponsored a 2010 state law banning the vast majority of abortions at 20 weeks or later, and that in 2011, he voted to bar telemedicine to conduct abortions and to prohibit insurance plans on the Obamacare exchange from covering abortions.

All of this information had already been out there: The votes were cast in public, after all. But Mello’s anti-choice record hadn’t come up when the DNC announced its plans to hold a rally for him in Omaha as part of Perez and Sanders’ “Come Together, Fight Back” tour weeks before. Or when Our Revolution, the successor organization to Sanders’ presidential campaign, endorsed Mello as well.

Neither Sanders nor the DNC knew about Mello’s long anti-abortion record, people with knowledge of the matter said. The revelation took the national party by surprise the day before Sanders and Ellison, the deputy DNC chair, were due to speak at a rally for Mello. (Again, though, it shouldn’t have. This is Nebraska, and Mello’s vote on the 20-week ban made the tally in the state legislature 44-5.)

Initially, Perez stood by the DNC’s decision to get involved in the race, telling the Journal that the DNC does not “demand fealty on every single issue.” And Sanders told the Journal that a victory for Mello would be “a shot across the board, that in a state like Nebraska a progressive Democrat can win.” It didn’t go unnoticed that Sanders described Mello as “progressive” despite Mello’s anti-abortion history.

DNC chair Tom Perez, left, greets Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at a rally in Salt Lake City on April 21, 2017. The event
DNC chair Tom Perez, left, greets Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at a rally in Salt Lake City on April 21, 2017. The event was part of a tour marred by controversy over abortion.

Then, the dams burst. Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, went on a tweetstorm hours after the Journal story appeared, lambasting Perez and Sanders for sending the message that Democrats can “shame women; we’ll support u anyway.” Hogue later issued a formal statement declaring that the DNC’s decision to “embrace and support [Mello]... is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid.”

Hogue did not try to get in touch with the DNC before posting her tweets Wednesday night, according to a Democratic aide. NARAL did not confirm or deny that claim, noting only that it is in frequent contact with the DNC.

(The DNC had hired John Neffinger, Hogue’s husband, as communications director after the November election, but he was always expected to hand over the reins to the incoming chair’s team, and he left a few weeks into the transition, prior to the rally in Omaha.)

Hogue’s tweets touched a nerve, with other top progressive players following NARAL’s lead. Daily Kos, a liberal site that has spearheaded efforts to fundraise for lesser-known Democratic candidates, withdrew its endorsement of Mello that Thursday, the morning after Hogue called out Sanders and Perez on Twitter.

The Planned Parenthood Action Fund also weighed in. Without mentioning Mello by name, it issued a statement proclaiming that “women’s health is central to the progressive movement.”

Thrust into a national controversy hours before he was slated to appear onstage with Sanders and Ellison that Thursday evening, Mello provided a statement to HuffPost clarifying that if elected mayor of Omaha, he “would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care.”

Recently, Mello has cast votes that were consistent with some of Planned Parenthood’s priorities, including a vote to expand Medicaid in 2015. As a candidate, Mello touts his opposition to efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.

In addition, his boosters note, Jean Stothert, the Republican incumbent Mello is challenging, is an even stauncher opponent of abortion rights. (None of the other candidates in the April 4 jungle primary were pro-abortion rights either.)

Nationalizing this race had big risks and they’re not always gonna pay off. Chris Reeves, DNC committeeman

Perez nonetheless responded to the uproar by staking out a much firmer stance against anti-abortion candidates after speaking with Hogue and Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards.

“I fundamentally disagree with Heath Mello’s personal beliefs about women’s reproductive health,” Perez said in a statement following the Mello rally last Friday. “It is a promising step that Mello now shares the Democratic Party’s position on women’s fundamental rights. Every candidate who runs as a Democrat should do the same because every woman should be able to make her own health choices. Period.”

The remarks, which won Perez praise from NARAL, were widely interpreted as a promise that the Democratic Party will only get behind candidates who support abortion rights.

For his part, Sanders stuck by Mello, claiming the party could not afford to exclude anti-choice candidates. He was soon joined by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who all argued that there was room in the party for anti-abortion Democrats.

Now that Perez’s tougher pronouncement looks like an outlier among Democratic leaders, the DNC is claiming that he never meant to take a different position in the first place and was merely reaffirming the party’s strong commitment to fighting for abortion rights.

It’s not clear whether that clarification will help abate the criticism Perez has drawn for seeming to back away from a candidate at the first sign of controversy.

Ticking off the names of Democratic leaders who expressed tolerance for anti-abortion Democrats following the Omaha rally, Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb lamented that Perez did not show similar judgment.

He “got caught flat-footed and didn’t have a strong team around him yet and things didn’t get vetted,” Kleeb said. 

Heath Mello, a Democratic mayoral candidate in Omaha, Nebraska, addresses a crowd on April 20, 2017, as part of the DNC's "Co
Heath Mello, a Democratic mayoral candidate in Omaha, Nebraska, addresses a crowd on April 20, 2017, as part of the DNC's "Come Together, Fight Back" tour.

Chris Reeves, a DNC committeeman from Kansas, worries that Perez’s response could lead anti-choice Democrats, abundant in the Midwest, to conclude that they are not welcome in the party.

“Nationalizing this race had big risks and they’re not always gonna pay off,” said Reeves, who is also a longtime Daily Kos writer. “Perez’s statement did not calm the situation, it confused it and kept the debate alive.”

Indeed, the incident has sparked a boomlet of think pieces and social media commentary in some ways reminiscent of the Democratic presidential primary split between those who supported Sanders and those who supported former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Many liberal feminists ― such as Jill Filipovic, Sady Doyle, Emmy Bengtson and Rebecca Traister ― saw the Mello case as evidence of what they have long believed, that reproductive rights are a negotiable part of Sanders’ otherwise uncompromising economic-populist agenda. Sanders’ noncommittal attitude toward Jon Ossoff, a Democratic candidate in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District whose Republican opponent is an infamous anti-abortion activist, gave further fodder to these critics.  

At an earlier stop on the Unity Tour, the Vermont senator made ambivalent comments about Ossoff. Sanders claimed he “did not know” if Ossoff is progressive, according to the Journal, while The Washington Post reported from the same interview that Sanders had flatly said the Georgia Democrat is “not a progressive.” (Sanders later clarified that he supports Ossoff and hopes he will win.)

It doesn’t appear to have helped matters that Sanders recently endorsed former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) in the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary. As a congressman, Perriello voted for the Stupak amendment, a piece of legislation that would have barred federal funding from the Affordable Care Act from going toward insurance plans that cover abortions.

Perriello now says he “regrets” that vote, but his opponent in the Democratic primary, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, has a more pristine record in support of abortion rights, and has used it as a club to beat Perriello. (Northam’s record, though, is sullied by his two votes for President George W. Bush, who was proudly anti-abortion and appointed multiple like-minded justices to the Supreme Court.)

“What Bernie doesn’t seem to realize is that the abortion rights movement has really bucked up and gotten some tough ovaries in the last couple of years,” Virginia-based reproductive rights activist Erin Matson, who has criticized Sanders’ Perriello endorsement, told The New York Times.

Ilyse [Hogue] doesn’t like me and she doesn’t like Bernie, so this is a chance for her to draw some bright line in the sand. Jane Kleeb, Nebraska Democratic Party chairwoman

Meanwhile, progressive analysts more sympathetic to Sanders speculated that NARAL might be taking a tougher line against Mello than other anti-choice Democrats because the group wanted to stick it to Sanders.

NARAL enthusiastically endorsed Clinton in the presidential primary, these critics noted, and it later approved of her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), despite his personal “pro-life” views and past support of some anti-abortion policies. The organization also endorsed Ted Strickland’s 2016 Senate campaign, notwithstanding his vote to ban so-called partial-birth abortion in 2003, the same year NARAL gave him a 30 percent rating.

Those questions intensified after the publication of an article in The Nation on Monday in which two Omaha-based reproductive rights activists supportive of Mello expressed frustration that national groups had failed to consult them.

“Why are you creating a firestorm around Bernie Sanders endorsing Heath Mello when for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine you created a big money PAC?” Winnie Wong, a co-founder of the group People for Bernie and co-author of the Women’s March platform, asked of NARAL.

Kleeb, an early endorser of Sanders who sits on the board of Our Revolution, was less diplomatic.

“Ilyse [Hogue] doesn’t like me and she doesn’t like Bernie, so this is a chance for her to draw some bright line in the sand,” Kleeb said. “And guess what? She didn’t win.”

“Sadly, instead of focusing on the grassroots excitement and large turnouts that greeted Bernie, the Democratic establishment instead wants to continue the battles of the 2016 primary,” said a source close to Sanders.

“Bernie, who has a 100 percent lifetime pro-choice voting record and is a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood, is being attacked because he endorsed the Democratic candidate for mayor who, like Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine, along with Senators Bob Casey, Joe Donnelly, and Joe Manchin, is personally pro-life,” the source went on. “In addition to the fact a mayor has virtually no impact on this issue, Mello has specifically committed that he ‘would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care.’”

NARAL insists that it views Kaine differently than Mello because Kaine has demonstrated his evolution with a Senate voting record in support of abortion rights since 2013. Mello, by contrast, has thus far only made rhetorical promises to protect abortion rights if elected mayor, according to the group.

Jodi Jacobson, editor-in-chief of Rewire, which was critical of Clinton’s decision to pick Kaine, wrote on Wednesday that the laws Mello helped pass “remain in place, and Mello has neither denounced them nor made clear whether he now understands why they are so damaging.”

Hogue tweeted out Jacobson’s analysis approvingly.

“We drew attention to the Unity Tour stop in Nebraska, and the comments Party leaders made on it, because they collectively ― intentionally or unintentionally ― sent a message to women around the country that our fundamental rights were under question within the Party,” NARAL national communications director Kaylie Hanson Long said in a statement. “DNC Chair Tom Perez has since been extremely clear that he stands with the Democratic base (and the women who power it), which overwhelmingly believes in legal access to abortion care regardless of their personal views. We look forward to working together to elect candidates who support and advance those core values.”

Virtually every party involved in the Mello episode made mistakes, according to Reeves ― including Our Revolution, whose behavior has raised questions about “how you get [the group’s] endorsement and what criteria they use to give it.”

Our Revolution did not immediately respond to a request for more information about its endorsement criteria and Sanders’ role in the organization.

“Heath Mello is the right candidate for Omaha,” Reeves told HuffPost in an email. “He was done an unfortunate disservice by having his race turned into a dispute between national groups that have probably spent very little time worrying about who is the Mayor of Omaha until 2 weeks ago.”

Sign up for the HuffPost Must Reads newsletter. Each Sunday, we will bring you the best original reporting, long form writing and breaking news from The Huffington Post and around the web, plus behind-the-scenes looks at how it’s all made. Click here to sign up!



2017 Scenes From Congress & Capitol Hill